We feel guilty when we believe we have done something wrong, but we feel shame when we believe that we are wrong. In other words, guilt is about a specific act, whereas shame is about self-worth. When you feel bad about who you are, that is shame. Sometimes we feel shame because we’ve been taught to think of ourselves as wrong or broken. Abuse, for example, can lead victims to feel shame. Shame can also occur when past choices haunt us—when we feel regret not for what we did to someone else, but for what we did to ourselves.
Without self-forgiveness, your shame may lead you to do things for which you feel even more ashamed. Shame builds on shame. To unburden yourself, you must practice self-compassion, and to heal, you must recognize your humanity. No human being is perfect. We all make mistakes. Our mistakes only define us if we let them.
1. Accept your situation
To heal from shame and become the person you want to be—and build the life you want to live—you first have to accept who you are and where you are right now. You must practice what the founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Marsha Linehan, calls “radical acceptance”: Accepting life as it is, not how it “should” be.
2. Understand why you are here
Where are you, and how did you get here? Think back on the events that led you to your current situation and state of mind. Mindfully consider why you made the choices you did. What needs were you trying to meet? Remember, you were doing the best you could with the skills you had at the time.
3. Learn from your experiences
How have your experiences and past decisions made you the person you are today? Even the most significant adversity can make us stronger. What wisdom can you glean from your mistakes? You can’t change the past, but you can learn from it to make new, better choices in the future.
4. Forgive your past self
To become the person you want to be, you must forgive yourself for the things you regret. Look at yourself in the mirror and say, “I forgive you” out loud to your reflection. Be specific if you can. For example: “I forgive you for staying in unhealthy relationships too long,” “I forgive you for not fighting back.” By forgiving the child (or young adult or younger older adult) in you, you can heal and grow.
5. Apply lessons learned
You can’t redo the past, but you can make new choices going forward. To do that, you must stay mindful. Make a plan for how you will make healthier and more helpful choices from now on. And help others do the same. When we atone for our wrongs against others, we take actions to repair the harm we caused them. When we harm ourselves, we can atone by helping those struggling with the same issues that once made us feel shame. This might mean mentoring someone younger than yourself or speaking openly about your experiences so that others experiencing what you did won’t feel so alone.
I find the serenity prayer a good mantra for self-forgiveness. Written in the 1930s by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the prayer has been adapted for use in addiction support groups: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” If you’re not religious, you can swap “God” for “Universe,” or some other term you feel fits your belief system.
Sometimes we make choices that we regret, and sometimes we internalize emotional wounds inflicted on us by others. Life is a series of events and choices, and some of those events and choices make us feel ashamed of who we are. While shame is natural and normal, you don’t have to live with it forever. You are more than what happened to you; you are more than your mistakes.